A Madness of Angels: The magical soul of London

Matthew Swift 1. A Madness of Angels 2. The Midnight Mayorfantasy book reviews Kate Griffin A Madness of AngelsA Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin

I think maybe I love Kate Griffin’s A Madness of Angels. It’s a mature love, too, not just a crush, because I can see the faults in the thing and I love it anyway. It’s a hard book to write about without spoiling the fun for everyone, so instead of discussing the plot I will focus on what I loved.

I love Griffin’s view of magic. Reviewers compare A Madness of Angels to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, and those comparisons are apt. This is a book, first and foremost, about London, a magical London that is as close to our London as the next bus kiosk, the Tube or that pigeon waddling toward you looking for a handout.

Matthew Swift was a sorcerer, able to harness the magic of the city in a holistic, intuitive way. Two years ago, Matthew was murdered. Now he’s back, and he’s not sure why. And he’s different. I don’t want to give away too much, but someone came back with him. Here is one more tidbit. Matthew used to have puppy-dog-brown eyes. Now they’re blue.

Griffin imagines magic as a current of power, fed by the energy of living things, all living things. Countrysides have their magic, the traditional elf-and-fey-folk magic of British folklore, but cities, especially old cities, are magical stockpiles. Matthew is an urban magician, dealing with the dazzling, churning, seductive and overwhelming power of London. Many sorcerers, we are told, succumb to the pulse of the city and become half-mad vagrants and wanderers, unable to tell if they are a human or a rat, or a crow, or the 9:15 train. And cities, like the ocean, like forests and caves, create their own mythology and their own pantheon of new gods — the Beggar King, the Bag Lady, the Midnight Mayor and even the Last Train on the Circle Line. This is where Griffin is most like Gaiman.

Griffin’s definition of “life” is fluid. Is light alive? Is music? Is fire? Is electricity? A thing with a purpose, when that purpose has been honored by thousands of people, can become an object of power for a sorcerer. One of the most charming things about Matthew is his respect for things: locks, trains and doors that have assumed power because of the integrity of their purpose. He also knows when to bring the metaphysical brass knuckles.

Before Matthew can figure out what or who brought him back, he has to face down a powerful enemy who is threatening all of London’s sorcerers. Matthew assembles a most unlikely group of allies. These are plausible characters from all walks of magical life, including the narrow-minded, viciously anti-magic Order. They don’t like each other, they don’t trust each other, but they will work together, because they are all being threatened.

The dialogue is crisp, perfectly timed, laugh-out-loud funny. Griffin’s descriptions are vivid, exquisite, gory, grotesque, poignant, sweet and quirky. I said this was a mature love, and that I saw the book’s flaws, and I will mention one now. She has a writing tic that forces her characters to “hiss” bits of dialogue, even bits that have no sibilants at all. “ ‘Go away,’ he hissed.” I began to develop an allergic reaction to the verb. At the end of the book, when a character actually “hissed, almost like a snake,” which would have been a great description, it just made me annoyed. “Said” works fine, Kate. Trust me. Better yet, trust yourself.

For reasons I can’t go into, voice is very important in this book, and Griffin manages this with the grace of a champion surfer on a twenty-foot wave.

A Madness of Angels is a long, well-plotted book, except for one loose end that is an annoying as getting that scrap of dental floss caught in your back teeth. The characters are convincing and memorable, the action sequences suspenseful, but what I take away from the book is Matthew’s — and Griffin’s — love for the magical soul of London.

~Marion Deeds

fantasy book reviews Kate Griffin A Madness of AngelsA Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin

It seems to be public knowledge at this point that Kate Griffin is Catherine Webb, an author of several YA fantasy novels who has now made the leap into adult urban fantasy. A Madness of Angels is a difficult book to read and review in terms of its structure and point-of-view, for its uniqueness lies not in its story or character, but in the way in which this particular tale is told.

Matthew Swift awakens on his bedroom floor, naked and disoriented, only to find that two years have passed since he was last conscious, that his house is no longer his own, and that his (previously brown) eyes are now bright blue. He flees into the night, and his journey begins in the streets of London as he tries to piece together what exactly has happened to him.

To explain too many circumstances of the plot would be to defeat the entire point of the story, as the reader is purposefully thrown headfirst into Matthew’s bizarre situation with very little idea of what’s going on, why he refers to himself as “we,” what’s chasing him, or what exactly he’s trying to achieve. Is it confusing? Sure, but then Matthew is a very confused individual! Everything we experience is what Matthew himself experiences, due to the book’s most distinctive storytelling feature: its tight perspective. The entire story is told from Matthew’s point-of-view and all we get are his immediate experiences as he traverses London.

Gradually we gather bits and pieces of the mystery through Matthew’s occasional reminiscences into the past, but this is a character that lives almost entirely in the present. In what is essentially a survival story and a quest for vengeance, the central plot not only deals with Matthew’s resurrection into the world, but his attempts to traverse the opposing sides of a war that rages silently within London. On the one side are those that seek to eliminate magic-users, and on the other are magically-gifted individuals allied to the immensely powerful Tower, an organization run by Matthew’s former mentor. Despite being a magician himself, Matthew has to turn to those that mistrust and fear him in order to achieve his goals.

As you might have already guessed, London itself is a prominent character in the story, fused with Griffin’s creative use of “urban magic.” From the wealthy penthouses to the alleyways filled with homeless people, from the hum-drum of suburbia to the secret pockets of the supernatural hiding in the shadows, this is a London that is filled to the brim with life and magic, two concepts that are deliberately and continuously linked throughout the book. Described in vivid sensory terms, the fact that all of Matthew’s power is based on the heartbeat of London reveals Griffin’s affection for the city.

As such, Griffin’s “world-building” when it comes to the rules and quirks of urban magic is a treat. Here is a world in which litter bugs are literal dangers, where power can be dragged out of electrical wiring, where graffiti can provide potent magical symbols, and the world can be glimpsed through the eyes of pigeons and rats. Amongst those that hold power in the city are the likes of the Beggar King and the Bag Lady, figures who act much like a Greek array of gods, each with their own distinctive powers, personality and responsibilities.

As a protagonist, Matthew displays a somewhat hapless exterior, with a wicked sense of humor and a sharp mind that is usually one step ahead of everyone else. Although the narrative is more or less trapped inside his head, there’s certainly an interesting brain ticking away in there.

While the pacing can be a bit sluggish at times, and the premise is initially quite confusing, those that that stick with the story may find an intriguing story of mystery and unexpected magic. Ending on a note that promises sequels, A Madness of Angels is a challenging but intriguing read.

~Rebecca Fisher

fantasy book review Kate Griffin Matthew Swift 1. A Madness of AngelsA Madness of Angels is the story of Matthew Swift, a London sorcerer who finds himself resurrected on the floor of his bedroom, with no explanation, two years after his death. I thought Matthew Swift’s story had a lot of potential, but I found Kate Griffin’s style of prose to be simultaneously so obtuse and overly detailed that it detracted from the plot.

For example, early in the book there is an encounter with a monster (the Litterbug) which is supposed to be terrifying, but it’s weighed down by two pages of description of its appearance. This description takes twice as long to read as the incident would have taken to occur. This overly exhaustive writing style was rampant throughout A Madness of Angels. At least a dozen times in the first twenty pages I caught myself thinking, “Why are you telling me this?” There’s just so much extraneous writing that the story is impossible to see underneath it.

Also, the point of view jumps back and forth between first person singular and first person plural, and this was confusing. Who is this “we?” Is the narrator possessed, or is he royalty? Unfortunately, I never got around to finding out. This, combined with dialog that makes the narrator sound like he is a Shakespearean actor,  was incredibly distracting.

If I find myself having an active internal monologue critiquing the dialog structure, then the plot has lost my attention. I don’t like books that think they can build tension by being vague and confusing. A good writer should be able to make you care about the plot without resorting to deliberate obfuscation. I think there is a good story in A Madness of Angels, but the prose is so bewildering that it turned off any desire to find it.

~Ruth Arnell

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

View all posts by Marion Deeds


  1. This sounds like an interesting read. It seems, as said in the review, it is due to his lack of memory of past that causes the confusion. You are seeing things from the main characters view and being he can’t remember makes it all a jumbled confusion. I think I might actually like this. Thanks for the review. I like as well you added that you couldn’t give to much away as you would give away details for the book. Sounds like a read I would like.

  2. This seems to be a love it or hate it kind of book. It took me a few pages to get into the rhythm of the book. But I think I’m coming down on the love it side of the equation.

  3. Yeah, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a book divide FanLit quite like this one! :D I need to give it a try and see what I think.

  4. I’ve had this one lying around for ages — on your recommendation — and I need to get to it soon!

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